Imagine the scene. Every few years, a select group of bishops from around the world travel to Rome to sit in an auditorium with the pope. The bishops spend the day taking turns talking. They then return to the “Synod Hall” inside the walls of the Vatican the second day, and the third, and repeat this routine for almost a month until all the bishops have taken their turn to offer input to the Holy Father on a variety of issues. 

In the last 50 years these gatherings, called synods, have been convened to discuss broad themes that bishops usually have previous experience talking about. Topics have included evangelization, the Eucharist, priestly formation, and in the case of the most recent synod, the Christian family. 

The 2018 Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment being held October 3-28 may be a little different. The Church hasn’t really devoted large parts of her teaching to focusing on age differences. What can prepare bishops to talk about an age group they no longer belong to?

Pope Francis’ answer was to make sure the Church heard from young people themselves: their experiences in the world today, their hopes, their worries, their sorrows, and even their confusions. 

To ensure these voices were heard, the pope sent a questionnaire around the world last year with 15 questions for everybody and three specific questions for each continent, as well as a request to share three “best practices.”

The result was a working document, or “Instrumentum Laboris,” that tried summarizing the feedback from young people and bishops conferences around the world. In doing this, the process outlined by Francis sought to “listen to the voice of young people themselves, so as to make them key players right from the very beginning,” according to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.

For our special Synod 2018 issue, Angelus invited four lay Catholic men and women with experience in youth ministry and evangelization to share their thoughts on what the synod can address based on what they see young people saying, doing, and hoping for in 2018.

Chris Stefanick is a co-author of RISE, an online course exclusively for men that serves as a virtual Catholic ministry. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/COURTESY CARDINAL STUDIOS LLC)

Chris Stefanick: A return to the basics

I’m not a theologian, cultural commentator, or pundit. I’m not a statistician who can track all the trends in youth culture. I’m an evangelist. I have been my entire “career, and what I see working is a return to the basics. 

My work isn’t groundbreaking or complex. There is no secret formula. In fact, I strive to run the least innovative ministry in the Catholic Church. The central driver of our ministry is a parish-based evangelistic outreach event for all ages. 

Our events are consistently full. Even in small towns we typically get 1,000 people — and it’s typically from just a 20-mile radius. Pastors tell us that up to 70 percent of the crowds at our events aren’t “the usual pew sitters.” It’s also safe to say that half of our audience are millennials. 

Our outreach plan consists of coaching parish teams of volunteers to reach out to their entire community and personally invite people home to the Church. When parish outreach teams get too creative in their efforts, too media savvy, or too innovative, my team of parish coaches gets nervous. 

When outreach teams stick to basics and invite people, personally, they succeed every time.

So, what am I seeing that they need from the Church? A back-to-basics clarity. I’m not merely speaking about clarity when it comes to our teaching, but in a more encompassing sense of the word: They want clarity on what, exactly, we have to offer for their lives. And if we can’t answer that for them, they want us to get out of their way. 

Our message, the “thing” that we offer, is the gospel, which, despite all the failures of the Church, remains the best news ever. 

It’s the message that we’re created with a purpose, redeemed by a loving God who has a plan for our lives, and destined for eternal glory. It’s the message that we’re called to greatness by making Jesus the Lord of our lives. We’re not just invited to call him “friend” and then do what we want. It’s the message that he loves us, even in our weakness. 

The results are conversions. Every week. A young woman recently approached me after an event and said, “I had an abortion. You’re the first person I’m telling this to. And this is the first time since my abortion that I feel like God can love me again.” I walked her to her priest, who heard her confession, and she left a different person. These stories happen all the time. 

Simplicity. Clarity. Back to basics. It’s the same principle used by any truly effective company in the secular world. If someone is going to “buy” a product from you, they have to know exactly what you’re selling. If you aren’t clear on the value you’re going to bring to a person’s life — so clear that they can “get it” quickly — they’ll find you annoying. 

My hope from any document the Church writes to youth is that it mark a return to first things. 

We need that now more than ever. Vague language about hard moral issues won’t win souls.

After the McCarrick debacle, frankly, vague language from our clerics attempting to be more “open-minded” and push the envelope on sexual ethics will just seem … well … creepy. 

Spelling out, in a document, ad nauseum that we’re listening won’t win souls either. It’ll make us look like we’re trying to be relevant. Facebook and Apple didn’t rise to the top by telling millennials, “We’re listening.” 

Creating a rift between new propositions and old teachings in an effort to go along with the times won’t make us attractive either. It’ll make us look faithless and desperate. 

If we want to actually win souls in a world where young people are bombarded by 3,000 ads per day, we have to come back to basics. We have to be clear about what, exactly, we offer them. In the midst of a culture of death, we have to offer “life to the full” in him. We have to be known as the Church of the gospel again. 

Thankfully, we don’t have to rewrite the playbook.

Chris Stefanick is an author, speaker, and the host of the reality TV show “Real Life Catholic,” which reaches millions of viewers each month.

Katie Prejean-McGrady was one of three young adult delegates selected by the U.S. bishops to attend a March pre-synod gathering in Rome. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/KATIE PREJEAN-MCGRADY)

Katie Prejean-McGrady: Speaking the truth

We’re at a unique moment in the life of the Church right now.

On the one hand, young people find themselves living in a relativistic, “feel good” culture that condones almost any behavior and endorses any “philosophy” of life, so long as it doesn’t necessarily “hurt” other people. 

On the other hand, though, young people are beginning to recognize the intensity of these cultural lies, and seek solace, comfort, and a home in the tradition and truth of the Church.

Knowing young people hear a lot of “mumbo-jumbo,” and knowing young people don’t like to be lied to, this Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment comes at a perfect time. 

The Church is uniquely situated to speak truth to generations of teens and young adults, invite them to a relationship with Jesus Christ, and articulate in a beautiful and engaging way why Catholicism is life-giving, life-changing, and the Church is the home they’ve longed for.

This is what teens and young adults want from the Church — an honest and beautiful presentation of the truth of our faith and an authentic and welcoming invitation to live life with Christ. 

At times, many young people (myself included) have felt like the rich young man in the Gospels who walks away sad from Jesus, thinking that all he has prevents him from following Jesus, 

We, too, can sometimes think we’re somehow unworthy and unable to fully follow Jesus, for whatever reason. What we’ve been attached to — ways of thinking and ways of living — have kept us far from the Church and Jesus. 

For some, they’ve been distant because of confusion and misunderstanding of specific teachings of the Church that haven’t been articulated properly or well. For others, it’s a fear of giving up a life that’s been pleasurable and temporarily satisfying. 

Some young people have never seen or met followers of Jesus who themselves have been inviting, welcoming, honest, and compassionate. They’ve thought the Church is distant and uninviting, rigid, and closed-minded. And still, for others, the Church seems archaic, old, outdated, out of touch, and inaccessible. 

These young people are worth reaching, they are worth welcoming, they are worth walking with, and they are whom this synod is for. Your task is to speak to them and invite them home.

There are also many young people who love their Faith and have given their hearts and minds to Jesus. This synod is for them as well, and the synod Fathers need to know that many teens and young adults around the world have been swept up in the grandeur, beauty, and richness of the Church’s history and teachings, and have encountered men and women who have taught them well. 

Many of us who have fallen in love with our Catholic faith, and Jesus Christ, have done so because we have experienced the compassion and love and beauty of the Church that preaches authentic truth, boldly proclaims her teachings, challenges us to live virtuously, and invites us into the adventure of becoming saints.

The synod is a chance for the Church to continue doing this — to share the depth and beauty of our Catholic teaching, teachings that are life-changing, life-giving, and necessary in this relativistic and sometimes hopeless world. 

The synod is the moment the Church needs to speak to the faithful young men and women who are in the Church and say, “We are so happy you are here,” and a moment to speak to those who are outside the Church and say, “This is a place for you, and we want you here.”

Katie Prejean-McGrady is an international speaker, educator, and author.

Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of FOCUS. (COURTESY FOCUS.ORG)

Curtis Martin: The answer to our deepest questions

In the working document for the upcoming Youth Synod — the “Instrumentum Laboris” (IL) — we were presented with an ambitious attempt to listen to the concerns of the youth of the world.  

While the IL has rightfully generated a lot of attention, I want to offer a different point of departure for our consideration of young people and their faith and vocational discernment.

Anyone reading the IL will be struck, and possibly overwhelmed, by the depth of the socio-cultural survey. While the concerns and aspirations described there should not be lightly dismissed, taking that as the starting point and then trying to work out how to help is, to say the least, difficult. So, what are we to do?

I think the answer lies in the delightful fairy tale of George McDonald called “The Golden Key.”  In this Christian allegory, professor Peter Kreeft explains that:

“A boy and a girl find a golden key, but they have to search all worlds for the door it opens. They get the answer first, then they look for the question. … For the answer, the golden key, is Christ. This answer has been dumped into our laps, into our world. 

“Now we have to rearrange and reinterpret our lives around this answer. We have to rearrange our questions. Our fundamental situation is hilariously ironic: millions of people milling around looking not for the key but for the door, not for the answer but for the question.”

Possession of this Golden Key is the good news. To know from the outset that the answer to all our deepest questions is Jesus — the Joy of the Gospel — is truly the best news.

Jesus Christ is also the Golden Key to helping our estranged and non-Christian youth understand their every hurt, every tear, every joy, and every hope. 

St. Pope John Paul II understood the duty to share this news as a mission, a high calling to discipleship:

“I sense, that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” (“Redemptoris Missio,” no. 3)
But this high call of discipleship comes at a cost — our entire life trustingly and completely offered to Christ: … “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me…” (Luke 9:23).  

While it may be tough, if we give our life to Christ every day, we hope that one day we may be able to say with St. Paul that “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).  

St. Theresa of Ávila did it and could tell us that, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

If we are to do this, we must be uncompromising in our love and witness of the truth. There are some with sincere but mistaken intentions who would weaken the demands of Christ (cf. Matthew 5:19). We have seen where that leads in the experience of many mainline Protestant churches, in whom I have many dear friends, which have not grown in size or enthusiasm.

Jesus walked with the two on the road to Emmaus and he let them speak their hearts, and so, too, ought we listen to our young people and let them speak their hearts. It should be noted that after listening to them, Jesus offers a correction before he begins to teach them. Only when our young people let Christ form them, will they be able to recognize him to their heart’s content.  

We are all called to walk with our young brothers and sisters through the joys and travails of life.  We must begin with ourselves, recommitting, without reservation, to Jesus Christ and his Church, in order to meet the young and walk the journey of faith and vocational discernment with them in Christ. 

Curtis Martin is Founder of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and author of “Making Missionary Disciples: How to Live the Method Modeled by the Master.”


Elise Italiano: Three questions that matter: Who am I? Who do I belong to? Am I needed?

These three questions seem to be on the minds of millennials today, and it’s time for the Church to take notice.

Indeed, keeping this triptych front and center at the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment in Rome this month could serve as a focal point and could recenter participants when peripheral topics begin to encroach on the central questions at hand.

For centuries, Christians have boldly proclaimed that “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life.” The Church has the message that young people want to hear — that they are loved, they belong, and they are necessary.

But for a whole host of reasons — including the alternatives proposed by cultural prophets and the Church’s own diminished credibility — young people do not seem to be hearing that message or experiencing its transformative power.

In order to get their attention, the bishops must demonstrate that they understand what young people are looking for, and they must be able to testify to why the alternative proposals, no matter how attractive they are, fall short of fulfilling their deepest longings. 

In previous generations, young people would receive an education in who they were and the values that should shape their lives from communal support networks. Families, neighborhoods, places of worship, and civic associations helped to provide young people with a meaningful sense of self to build upon as they matured.

As these associations have weakened, the framework of building identity within community has been replaced by individual identity politics. At an early age, young people are expected to publicly declare allegiance to lifestyles, philosophies, and political parties, independent of external reference points. 

There is enormous pressure to construct a persona according to a lengthy checklist of cultural identifiers.

That transition has had an effect on community. Young people follow the lead of adults who segregate themselves into communities exclusively made up of like-minded members, which reinforce existing belief systems and allegiances. Because many of these communities only exist on digital platforms, authentic connection is never made.

But even in the midst of joining “lifestyle enclaves,” young people are reporting loneliness and anxiety at some of the highest rates to date. The symptoms of this epidemic are devastating, ranging from suicide to mass shootings to addictions. 

The bishops should be able to diagnosis the problem: that fleeting affirmations of identities built in isolation fall short of providing an authentic experience of belonging.

And, of course, all of this is related to a young person’s desire for purpose. The post-9/11 world, one that has been characterized by economic instability, an unending war, unraveling civil discourse, and an increasingly secular public square, has forced young people to ask, “What is it all about? Is there any point?”

In a world that likes to tell young people that identity and purpose depend on what you own, there’s an opening for the Church: If she can meet them at that critical moment of self-reflection, she can propose — with compassion and sensitivity — something more.

If the synod Fathers can identify this threefold search and diagnose where the cultural solutions have fallen short, they can gain back credibility as a trusted voice and guide. Young people might then listen to the freeing message that what comes before any other “identifier” is the reality that they are beloved children of God. 

They might be attracted to a community of believers who will bear their burdens and rejoice in their blessings. And they could be open to hearing and believing that they have been entrusted with a singular mission that no one else can fulfill.  

Identity, community, purpose. In the face of so many complexities, a simple formula could provide the way forward this fall.

Elise Italiano is the executive director of the GIVEN Institute, which inspires and equips the next generation of Catholic women leaders for the Church and wider culture.

SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!